Oftentimes, in the wonderful world of consulting, business relationships begin and end with the duration of the project. Your partnership is quick and efficient and if you can make each other laugh occasionally along the way, the collaboration becomes all that more enjoyable. When the project is complete, everyone says their thanks and congrats and then moves on to the next major initiative with hopes that it will be as successful and efficient as the last effort.
Relationships that are cultivated during a termed partnership can have a lasting reach when approached with a holistic mindset. Creating value that goes beyond the tasks at hand opens us up for multifaceted relationships and can serve as a catalyst for new ventures as business trends evolve and needs change.
As a former recruiter turned Certified Scrum Master and Client Engagement Manager, the idea of developing long-term, meaningful business relationships is at the core of my own personal job satisfaction and professional expertise. Why do I take technology classes online? Why do I read business strategy books? Why do I study Agile and Lean processes and principles? Why do I troubleshoot application integration issues? Why do I test software I don’t use regularly? The answer to all of this is simple: I care about my business relationships and gain both personal and job satisfaction when I am equipped to serve my teams thoroughly.
Building Your Relationships
While there are many ways to go about this and strategies will vary based on the individuals involved and the nature of the relationship from the start, there are some guidelines I have found to be useful and repeatable.
Know your audience.
Get to know not just your audience’s role in the current project or the tasks they perform, but become acquainted and understand their background, how they ended up in the project and what the circumstances are that got them into your path. What are their preferences in communication style, frequency and tone? If you can mirror these things, it will open up the flow of communication and assist in rapport building. Additionally, know them as individuals. Make the effort to learn things about them that humanize them outside of the professional engagement. What are they proud of, what brings them joy, how do they relate? In the world of texts and emails that are subject to misinterpretation, knowing your audience can help you objectively evaluate communication breakdowns and preserve the relationship by showing empathy when there are hiccups.
Be a Partner.
Partnering with our clients requires us to identify and understand our mutual interests and thus allows us to share in mutual success. When we share responsibility and ownership of common goals, the client/vendor relationship begins to disappear and partnerships evolve. Partners are “in the trenches” together and collaborate more efficiently in order to meet the common goal.
Be consistently good at what you do. Be consistently helpful. Be consistently honest and be consistently responsive and punctual. Be consistently professional in your communications and be consistently open to listening to and observing what isn’t said. Consistency is an enabler of trust and an illuminator of dependability. Relationships of trust allow partners to share their strengths and vulnerabilities and rally for the common goal.
Know your own value.
If you don’t know the value you bring to the partnership, neither will your business relations and they will have little motivation or incentive to maintain a long-term relationship with you. How are you uniquely qualified to assist your business relationships and how will they benefit from a long-term relationship with you? How will you benefit? True mutual benefit is different than a greasy sales pitch- understand and articulate this. Celebrate the differences in your role and the roles of those you serve. Reinforce when necessary so that your relationship is one of equals. If people are getting value from your relationship, they will want more of it!
Managing Relationships Dynamically Over Time
Relationships are dynamic things and their value may change with time and situation. Be alert to the changing needs of the industry, customers, vendors and things that influence your relationship.
Become a Trusted Resource.
Commit to providing value to your relationships by establishing yourself as a useful and trusted resource. In my years of recruiting, I would regularly comb the meetups, user group boards, technical articles, blog posts, event notifications and anything else that I thought we be a good resource for the candidates I wished to recruit. Knowing that many candidates HATED getting emails from recruiters, I took the opportunity to send useful information to those I hoped to recruit in the future. I would tell them about events my competitors were hosting if I thought it we would be useful to them. I sent links to articles that were specific to their location and/or profession in a quarterly communication. I was playing the long game. I wanted them to respond to me when I had a legitimate opportunity that I thought could enhance their current situations. I wanted to be seen as an authority on what was happening in the technical community so that they would respond to me. That desire gave me the drive to research, volunteer and consult and made me an authority in my field.
These skills transfer value across many professional roles. As a client Engagement Manager, I employ many of the same techniques I used as a recruiter to ensure I can provide value above and beyond the current engagement. Sharing technical articles with customer teams who may be adopting a new technical stack, or Scrum training information for teams struggling with the move from Waterfall to Agile practices, helps lay the groundwork for becoming a long-term trusted resource.
Use Your Tools.
Connect in a variety of ways, based on how the people in your network respond. Tweet to them, share articles via LinkedIn, like their pages in Facebook, comment on their blog, email them, get out for coffee or beer with them, have a quick conversation with them at industry events, etc.
A well maintained CRM is priceless in maintaining long-term relationships. Add quick notes on your interactions with people and what they are involved in, what you talked about, how they are doing. Keeping a historical record of interactions and lessons learned from these interactions will allow you to have a data driven approach so you can communicate intelligently and sincerely at the right time. Your tools should help you determine the right actions and the right timing for those actions, so you can prioritize your efforts and your business relationships.
Leveraging Your Relationships
The results of long-term business relationships are better quality projects and partnerships because you have created relationships of trust. Trusted partners can more easily align resources and efforts to create a space where innovation lives and will make room for future opportunities to leverage each other’s value. In short, if you build it, they will come!